I'll start by saying - I have much respect for Teehan + Lax. Most of what they do makes me insanely jealous. Same goes for Eric. Super smart human. But I was a bit perturbed by their depiction of big strategy as being necessarily wrong-headed, wasteful and exclusive. Strategy at its core is simply defining where you are, where you want to be, how you'll get there and how you'll measure your progress. If you spend 3 months crafting a strategy for a single tactical output, that's probably wasteful assuming you have good inputs and clear objectives. But combining all instances of strategy into that one bucket undervalues what strategy can be when done and applied properly.
Eric characterizers "big strategy" through this idea.
"They dutifully comb through consumer research and reports, hoping to uncover some magical insight that will unlock some door. For instance, they might discover that there is a statistically significant percentage of 16-24 year olds in Missouri who like kitten GIFs. So they recommend that their tortilla client sponsors a Facebook kitten GIF contest. Maybe they’ll even create a microsite for it. They will spend months planning and conceiving a campaign, cross their fingers and pray that it will ultimately deliver results."
So here's the thing. If that's your job, you are not doing big strategy. You are doing bad strategy. It's not all that hard to use 'big strategy' as a punching bag if you characterize it as chasing after inconsequential stats such as who likes gifs the most. When you actually need strategy, you should not be looking for one magical consumer insight to drive a single communication or platform, but a deeper understanding of the organizational inner workings, the competitive landscape and the marketplace that will uncover opportunities for new growth.
In big organizations with complex problems and complex marketplaces, creating a strategy helps to build commitment from the broader spectrum of the company. It helps us to consider the implications of what we do, both internally and externally. It helps us to get outside of our own assumptions and create a more nuanced understanding of those we need to reach. It helps us think more broadly about the business result of the outputs. When you leap too quickly into the product without working out some of those bits first, you are relying entirely on the generally limited knowledge that exists in the room. Again, sometimes that's okay. But not always.
Even the military photo introducing the post is wrongheadedly dismissive to the impact of strategy. Military organizations use strategy and planning more extensively than any other organization on the planet, precisely because they are dealing with incredibly complex challenges that require a nuanced understanding of the people they may affect. What you will see from the military is a model more like the one I endorse; understand the problem, get agreement on the end state, define the decision making frameworks and measures that'll help you know whether or not you're progressing, then finally - make sure everyone knows and understands that direction so you can decentralize decision making to the highest degree without losing effectiveness. But frankly, you can't do that last part without understanding those before it.
Eric goes on to say.
"This is the main source of digital marketing landfill – countless microsites that were never visited, mobile apps that nobody used, contests that only had 20 entries, and tweets that were never read. They are the unfortunate result of an approach that attempts to predict a positive outcome in a world that resists these types of predictions."
Frankly, that's just wrong. The idea that the digital marketing landfill is a product of big strategy is ridiculous. It's usually matter of total marketing myopia where everyone in the room doesn't question whether anyone would actual use the thing. A good strategist will help bring a customer or segment to life in a way that externalizes the team's thinking. That's a really really good cure to bullshit microsites.
"Big Strategy" helps us define the right problems to solve precisely so we can break old dogma and forge into unexplored territories while remaining rooted in the realities of the outside world. I would ask:
- Does it make sense to understand how customers buy a product before we jump in and start designing how we'll make it easier?
- Does it make sense that a company looks outward to understand what has worked and what has not when approaching a new market?
- Does it make sense for a company to analyze what competitors have done if they want to stand out themselves?
- Is it ever important for a company to consider the resources they have that may help them grow in new areas they may not have considered?
- Is it ever important to develop a new capability rather than creating a new tactic in order to accomplish an objective?
- Are the problems our clients face ever about doing too many things rather than not enough?
- Are there times when investment is required, even if profits haven't caught up with the potential?
If you are not equipped to tackle these kinds of questions, it doesn't mean that they won't be asked and answered. It just means that it will happen without you. We are screaming towards a time when digital shops will either need to diversify and move up the chain or focus and act more like technology companies than marketing agencies. Both will exist. Both will probably thrive. But it is a choice.
So I guess all I'm really saying is that you can't throw all strategy into one big bucket and call it a waste of time. You can rail against misapplied strategy, bad strategy or non-inclusive strategy that assumes it is only the purview of intellectuals, but it remains an effective tool in sustaining growth across a series of tactics when done at the right time and in the right way.
"The great virtue of thought and analysis is that they free us from the necessity of following recipes, and helps us deal with the unexpected, including the imagination to try something new."
Harold McGee on Food and Cooking
Photo credit: Carmen Marchena